The announcement that the government has decided to merge the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) into and under the Central Statistics Office (CSO) has caused both surprise and concern. What exactly the ‘merger’ means remains unclear. Recent attempts to question the veracity of National Sample Survey (NSS) data and the way the issue has been handled have given rise to apprehensions.
The present system
Under the present system, every year various departments of government send a list of subjects that they would like to be investigated by the NSSO. The requests are sent to the National Statistical Commission (NSC), which has respected economists, subject matter specialists and statisticians from government, including the head of the CSO and senior officials of the NSSO responsible for technical aspects of design and conduct of field work, as well as representatives of State governments. Subject matter specialists in particular fields are also brought in.
The tasks of sampling design, the scope and content of information to be collected, design of schedules and protocols of field work are left to be decided by special working groups. These groups are chaired by experts from academia, and senior officials of the CSO and the NSSO, State government representatives as well as select non-official experts. These working groups are in continuous supervision from the inception of each round through all the subsequent steps. Once the field work is over, the groups decide the detailed tabulation programme, and the tables to be prepared for publication. The tabulated results are discussed in detail by the NSC and are published after its approval.
Open access of data
After considerable hesitation and prodding, the government decided some years back to put all tabulations and the primary data on open access, especially to academic and other interested users. This decision has stimulated and facilitated the use of these data for intensive analyses by numerous researchers. These have played an important role in shaping policy and in improving the surveys.
What are the apprehensions?
The NSSO surveys command wide respect among academics, State governments and non-governmental organisations. Widespread apprehensions that the proposed absorption of NSSO into the CSO could compromise the surveys by subjecting their review and publication to government approval must therefore be allayed promptly in an unqualified manner. Any attempt or even a suggestion that its substantive work, publication and free dissemination of data are subject to the department’s approval will hugely dent the credibility of the Indian statistical system.
Scope for improvement
Urging this forcefully does not in any way suggest that the present institutional arrangements are flawless or that the NSSO is perfect. On the contrary, it is widely recognised that there is scope for improvement in the functioning of the institution and the way data are collected. These problems are well known:
1. the NSSO doesn’t have adequate budgetary allocations;
2. there is an acute shortage of trained field staff;
3. the scale of surveys is un-manageably large mainly because the users demand a degree of detail in content and regional disaggregation of estimates.
The NSC is fully conscious of these difficulties. The solutions call for action by the institutions responsible for gathering data by investing in continuing research on improving sampling design, field survey methods and validation of data. Correcting these deficiencies is entirely in the domain of government.
What is the conclusion?
Increasing the role of CSO officials in running the NSSO will not solve these problems, but they can help by providing funds for specialised research on survey design and methodology. The necessity and importance of such research calls for far greater attention and resources than they receive at present.